Most gamers immediately associate the phrase “great games” to critically acclaimed titles such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, FINAL FANTASY VII, and Grand Theft Auto V. Smaller productions also have a moment or two under the sun, with indie games becoming more relevant than they ever were, but they’re rarely as praised as their big brothers. LIMBO, Gone Home, and Undertale, to name a few, are often regarded as the pinnacles of the indie market, but there are games just as deserving as the poster children, Cave Story being one of them.
First released independently as a freeware in 2004, Cave Story is a Metroidvania that has been quiet over the years. It managed to garner a cult following despite little to no promotion, which led to an enhanced version co-developed and published by Nicalis (The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Castle in the Darkness). Fans are so dedicated to the title that it has been translated into several languages and ported over to a variety of platforms, including the original XBox, the Megadrive, and even the Dreamcast. Nintendo Switch owners will have the chance to experience a definitive version of the cult classic on June 20, yet few are aware of it.
Cave Story‘s lack of mainstream attention can be associated with the time of its release. Back in the early 2000’s, indie developers couldn’t hope for much success unless they managed to officially release their games on consoles. There was no clear market or even demand for indie games at the time, and because of that Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya’s effort took years to take off. Whereas today any small game can reach the stratosphere without any promotion, in 2004 there was no such thing. Even the enhanced versions and ports co-developed by Nicalis received little attention from the public and the media, with the game’s poster and title often lurking around Nintendo consoles and handhelds.
The game follows the robot Quote as he wakes up to find himself in a series of caverns. While exploring he meets a group of Mimiga, a race that has inhabited the island for many years. The remaining Mimiga are threatened by a man known as the Doctor and his assistants, the witch Misery and her sidekick Balrog. What follows is a race to save the Mimiga and unveil the mysteries surrounding Quote, the robot girl Curly, and the island itself. Cave Story may seem simple at first but as the story develops, it’s easy to understand why it won the hearts of its fans.
For a game that’s 13 years old, Cave Story aged beautifully. The gameplay is simple yet fluid, with the controls being as smooth as any modern platformer, if not more. Quote has a small arsenal of weapons at his disposal, each with an independent level that caps at 3. This leveling system determines how powerful the shots are and may sometimes add extra functionalities. For example, at level 3 the machine gun is capable of keeping Quote airborne, whereas levels 1 and 2 are only strong enough to kill baddies. There are also a bunch of collectibles and upgrades to be found in the island’s many areas, all of which, regardless of their linear structure, encourage exploration.
Those wishing for a more modern take on the old-school Metroid formula or just a great platformer, Cave Story is as good today as it was when it first came out. The original version is available for free at cavestory.org, a fan site dedicated to the title. If you wish to show Pixel some support, Nicalis co-developed and published an enhanced version available on Steam. On top of that, the game is also purchasable on the 3DS eShop and will be available for the Nintendo Switch on June 20.